Thursday, January 29, 2009

Big Little Problem

Words expressing size or quality are always relative. How big is big? How ripe is ripe? How quiet is quiet? In determining the applicability of any descriptive term, we must rely on ranges and averages as much as definitions. Room temperature might range from about 30 to about 90 degrees depending on the kind of room (tent? stone? wattle and daub?), the location (desert? rain forest?), and the season (summer? winter? monsoon?). Current standards of heating and cooling might allow us to define average room temperature as 70 degrees, but 200 years ago it was probably closer to 55 degrees, making the maxim that wine should be served at room temperature a conundrum.

So there is leeway in defining terms that express size or quality, and we acknowledge the absurdity of juxtapositions such as jumbo shrimp. But lately I have been noticing absurdities created by an apparent unwillingness to pick just one term.

I recently purchased onions at the supermarket. Putting them away at home, I paused to read the sticker that carried the PLU code and discovered that I had purchased “Large medium yellow onions.” Huh? Are they large, or are they medium? I will not consider the possibility that medium is referring to the shade of yellow. For one thing, there’s no hyphen. Surely the growers of all people ought to be able to establish sensible standards, whether by size or weight, diameter or ounces. Most disturbing, however, was that this sticker was attached to onions that I had chosen as being on the small side, i.e., smaller than average, i.e., neither large nor medium. The bin was labeled “Loose onions,” but my receipt had “Onions yellow sm.” Ah hah!

Is the size classification of yellow onions so exact that we need a subcategory poised between large and medium? I doubt it, especially when the produce in question didn’t belong in either category. If “large medium” is being applied to smaller-than-average specimens, can we look forward to buying onions classified as jumbo, colossal, and gigantic? I fear this is some kind of marketing ploy, although the purpose escapes me.

A second absurdity came from a different sort of aberrant thought process. A television ad for a fast-food place (let’s not dignify it as a restaurant) ballyhooed their sundaes, served with “warm hot fudge.” Huh? Is it warm, or is it hot? Actually, I think I have a handle on this one. The person who committed this was seeing hot fudge as a unit, the specific name of a specific thing, a fudgy sauce, its temperature irrelevant. Either the eatery didn’t plan to keep the stuff really hot (I don’t eat at such places partly because the food is never hot enough to please me), or the writer knew from experience that fudge sauce cools off very quickly once in contact with ice cream. Either way, he didn’t want to misrepresent the dish that customers would receive, and so he opted for warm, apparently not caring that the result was absurd, joined in that indifference by the corporate types who okayed this inane language.

As long as it’s heated above room temperature (vide supra), it’s hot fudge sauce. If you don’t heat it at all, it’s simply fudge sauce, and it won’t be a nice contrast for your ice cream. Likewise, if it’s bigger than medium, it’s large; and if it’s smaller than large, it’s medium. Just pick one, you vacillating (oxy)morons!

P.S. Okay, there is now (six months later) a red onion labeled Jumbo sitting in my onion basket. There were no "Small" or "Medium" red onions to compare it with. It is a good size, but not big enough to justify the hyperbole of jumbo versus simple large for something that tends to be on the big side anyway. The price was a bit more than usual. These are disturbing omens.

This is article 5 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Eat Here, We Have Heavy-Metal Windows!

The errors that occur in published material extend well beyond spelling and punctuation, although those are the most common. The fact that a firm or business hires professionals to create its ads or news releases or whatever is no guarantee that the result will be error-free and effective.

A fine example of PR myopia and carelessness appeared in a recent issue of a tabloid-sized advertising publication called The Merchandiser. Under the banner head “Featured Restaurant” appears a half-page ad for a newly opened place in downtown Frederick, Md. There is a four-color photograph of an unidentifiable food construct (it might be caviar atop a slice of cheddar cheese atop a very thin cracker) balanced on the back of a spoon. Beneath that are six short paragraphs in a very readable sans serif typeface, followed by the hours of operation, address, phone number, and website. Despite the oddity of the food image, the ad gives a good impression—until you read it.

Let’s start with two ludicrous errors in word choice, both in the homophone category. In paragraph three we are told that the restaurant’s Main Dining Room (their capitals) is “awash in a palate of amber and burnt rose.” Burnt anything offends my palate; the confusion of palate with palette offends my sensibilities. Then, in paragraph five, we learn that there is a “vintage palladium window overlooking Market Street.” When did they begin making windows out of a metal related to platinum? Such a window would weigh a ton and cost a fortune and not be at all transparent. A Palladian window, on the other hand, would look very handsome. To make matters worse, the sentence in which this imbecility appears is a grammatical mess.

Who made these errors? Who wrote this copy? I can only speculate and deduce. I was told by someone associated with the restaurant that they work with a PR firm. Perhaps there was a meeting at which the client requested that the ad mention the colors of the main dining room; the client may even have specified that the palette was amber and burnt rose, and the error here is entirely the copywriter’s. If the client prepared the copy and actually had the word palate written down, the PR firm should have caught the error; that is part of their job. Regardless of whether they made the error or failed to catch it, this howler is a blot on their reputation.

The confusion between palladium and Palladian is on another level entirely. I can envision several possible scenarios, all of which involve Spellcheck. It’s a certainty that the client knew what a Palladian window is, and the fault here belongs solely to the PR firm. Perhaps the client wrote Palladian but misspelled it; perhaps the copywriter mistyped it into the computer; or perhaps the client said Palladian and the copywriter heard it wrong or wrote the unfamiliar word down phonetically. My Spellcheck program offers both Palladian and palladium as alternatives for a likely misspelling, and I see the copywriter picking one without bothering to look it up even though he obviously didn’t know the meaning of either. For shame! May the shade of Andrea Palladio haunt you! (If he did know the meaning and used palladium anyway, his ignorance extends well beyond language.)

Now we come to the biggest problem with this ad. It has nothing to do with grammar, word choice, or punctuation, but it is something a good editor would have queried. The six paragraphs of text in this half-page ad for a restaurant tell us a great deal about the nineteenth-century brownstone that houses it, the décor and ambience of its various rooms, and its location in Frederick’s historic district. Oddly, only half a sentence mentions the food served in this marvelous edifice, and that only vaguely. To quote every word of it, we can look forward to “seasonal entrées” that “showcase classic flavor combinations prepared with fresh, local ingredients.”

So what kind of cuisine does this restaurant offer? New American? Classic French? Thai? The restaurant’s name, a shortening of the executive chef’s last name, isn’t much of a clue. His name is Italian; do we assume the cuisine is Italian? Turns out the place espouses a food philosophy called locavorism—that’s vor as in omnivore and loca as in local, not as in crazy. Call me crazy, but I believe most people debating where to go for dinner don’t choose a place because the architecture is exceptional. Some might be moved to try this one simply because it’s new and sounds elegant. But most people decide where to eat based on the kind of food that might be offered, and they have been given no useful information. This fundamental oversight is a fatal flaw.

This PR firm has produced an ad that doesn’t tell us the most important thing about the business being advertised and uses an unappetizing image to boot. (“What is that? Caviar on cheddar? Yecch!”) The promise of seasonal entrées, classic flavor combinations, and fresh ingredients is not very enticing. You expect that much from any fine restaurant. Good advertising sells the sizzle. This ad isn’t even selling the steak. It’s telling us all about the walls. Is the cuisine less appealing than the décor? Isn't the locavorism philosophy worth one paragraph out of six?

The client’s advertising budget has been ill-spent on an ad that contains not one but two laughable errors and will not entice nearly as many people as a well-conceived, well-written, and well-imaged one would have done. If this were my business, I’d probably be looking for a new PR firm. I would also make a point of proofreading all copy before giving it my approval to avoid embarrassment in the future.

This is article 4 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Sunday, January 11, 2009

That Would Be Wrong

I love game shows, especially the quiz variety. Jeopardy, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and Weakest Link are my favorites. But a few years ago, I began to notice a disturbing trend.

My earliest memory of it is the appearance of Danny Bonaduce on Millionaire and Weakest Link. The phrase “That would be” preceded his every answer, delivered very smugly. After that I realized many contestants were prefixing their answers with this phrase, and I’ve had enough of this nonsense. I will explain my disgruntlement for all of you (the majority, I suspect) who haven’t a clue what’s distressing me.

It all has to do with the subjunctive. “The what?” I hear you say. English verbs can be expressed in any of several moods: indicative, interrogative, exclamatory, imperative, and subjunctive. Indicative is simple action: “I ate the donut.” Interrogative asks a question: “Did I eat the donut?” Exclamatory makes a point: “I ate the donut!” Imperative is the form for command: “Eat the donut!” And the subjunctive is used to express the conditional: “I would eat the donut” says you haven’t but you want to; perhaps it hasn’t been offered or you daren’t risk the calories. Statements in the subjunctive often contain or at least imply an if or a but: “I would eat the donut, but it looks like someone dropped it” clearly states you’re not going to even though you’d really like a donut. The person who sighs “Would that I could!” reveals through use of a double subjunctive that he won’t even consider trying.

Therefore, to preface an answer with “That would be” implies that, for some reason, it’s not going to be the right answer. “That would be C, Regis,” begs the question, Except for what? The answer would be C if the Earth’s magnetic poles reversed? If the universe began spinning backwards? Under what conditions that don’t already exist would the answer be C?

But the speaker is implying no such thing by use of this phrase. It’s simply superfluous words, a polysyllabic emptiness akin to “you know” and other hot air-isms. On a show such as Weakest Link, it’s also an unforgivable waste of precious seconds. The fact that it’s a dead wrong use of the subjunctive is lost on these people but a great annoyance to me.

If the answer is C, just say, “The answer is C, Regis.” That would be the correct thing to do.

It’s actually odd that this prevalent error involves the use of the subjunctive rather than failure to use it. Many people don’t recognize when a subjunctive verb is called for, as in “It’s important that you be on time.” The subjunctive, like the imperative, borrows the infinitive form of the verb, and thus the form is often the same for all persons: I, you, he, we, you, and they must all be on time. The subjunctive isn’t always obviously different from the indicative except with to be. It’s not uncommon to see a construction such as “It’s important that you are on time,” but because the action does not actually occur—the person has not gone or arrived anywhere, on time or otherwise—the indicative are is incorrect.

Don’t be (negative imperative) in a bad mood when choosing a verb form. Consider (imperative) whether the action has occurred or is off in some hazy future; if you only want it to happen, use the subjunctive. Will you be (interrogative) more attentive to your moods now? I should hope so (exclamatory subjunctive)!

This is article 3 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson

Monday, January 5, 2009

Cn U Rd Ths Msj?

After face-to-face conversation, messages seem to be the most prevalent form of communication between individuals today. Instant messaging, text messaging, chat rooms, even voice mail and e-mail—all are characterized by brevity. And to avoid carpal tunnel and texter’s thumb, the latest ailments attributable to technology, message writers are inventing more and more abbreviations and acronyms, and capitals are being guillotined.

c u 2nite. Luv ya. LOL. IMHO. OMG! The list gets longer every week. Communication doesn’t involve words so much as mnemonics for them. These modern technoglyphics are very useful and kind of fun, unless you’re an old fuddydud and can’t wring meaning out of BFF. But what happens when texters sit down to write a formal communication? Do the mnemonics morph back into real words?

The teenager who gets with his girlfriend by pager or busily texts OMG squeals to her BFFs all day long may have a problem when the teacher demands an essay written on paper in the classroom or a report prepared at home on paper or computer. Will he correctly translate c u 2nite into See you tonight? Will she remember how to spell love? Will they produce half-breed monsters—See you tonite or Luv you? What happens when they compose blogs? Will they be so replete with technoglyphic shorthand they become incomprehensible or even just unreadable?

Spelling has always been the bugbear of the English language. Throughout its history, the way words were spelled tended to be rather freeform and individual. The spread of education to the emergent middle class vastly increased the number of people writing and reading things and occasioned the appearance of the first dictionaries of English in the eighteenth century, to help the writers be comprehensible to the readers. Two hundred years of standardization followed, giving us the written English of today. Now the trend to brevity threatens to turn English into a bifurcated language, like Arabic.

Arabic exists as multiple spoken dialects, which differ greatly from region to region, and as a formal written language, which is strictly construed and not very flexible. A Moroccan and an Egyptian would have trouble understanding each other’s speech, but they can read each other’s newspaper. In the time of the caliphs who ruled from Baghdad, the grammarians were as venerated and rewarded at court as the poets, and they created a logical structure for formal Arabic that shows English up as the mongrel mix it is. Their elegant, punctilious construct makes the spelling of things simple but keeps the written and spoken languages apart as well as making written Arabic straitened and inelastic. (Oddly, written Arabic and textspeak share one characteristic: they both leave out the vowels.)

Because its pedigree is so spotty, English usage is based not on the dicta of long-ago pundits but on consensus: this is how most people have said it or spelled it, so that’s how it’s said or spelled. The lexicon easily accepts new words and new constructions, and there is lots of room for definition and argument. The dictionaries have helped establish standards of usage as well as spelling, but a standard based on consensus can change.

Do we want it to change? Will we stand firm for the standard spelling codified in the nineteenth century? Will we insist that any formal communication—a paper for school, a thank-you note to an aunt, a graphic on the television, a newspaper article—follow the rules laid down a hundred years ago? I for one would find it extremely difficult to wade through more than a few lines of textspeak, and I prefer my spelling old-style, because it’s familiar and it’s what we all agreed to when we signed on for universal literacy.

What then of this first generation of texters and bloggers? Perhaps the IM crowd, like the speakers of Arabic, will develop two distinct languages. One is the textspeak used among specific groups or cliques that imposes brevity and rewards cliché. LOL only means something if everyone knows what it means and is content to mean only that; it leaves no room for interpretation or nuance; there is no music. The other language is the highly malleable, bastard amalgam that is standard English, whose roots include Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Nordic, Amerindian, and Swahili, and the spelling of which reflects the diversity of those roots. Like formal Arabic, formal English is comprehensible to everyone because everyone has learned the same rules; unlike Arabic, even formal English has the ability to accommodate the new effortlessly.

Syntax is best served by grammar, and meaning truly suffers when we don’t put the words together right. Spelling has its place too syntactically, and if I mean too but spell it to, we have a communication breakdown. If I spell it 2, meaning is purely contextual and may have gone right out the window.

Texting and other instant communications rob the English language of its richness and complexity. Evolve your technoglyphics and increase your vocabulary of emoticons and numeral-consonant juxtapositions, if you must. But remember there is a far wider potential audience than your IM buddies, and they may not speak your very limited private lingo. Standard English has its place and serves an important purpose. Let’s keep it going till we can replace it with something better. Like telepathy.

Here’s a glossary for the truly out of touch. Cn U Rd Ths Msj, Can You Read This Message; LOL, laughing out loud; IMHO, in my humble opinion; OMG, oh, my god; BFF, best friend forever; IM, instant messaging.
This is article 2 in a continuing series.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Who's To Blame?

The first installment of Crotchets has to explore the issue of responsibility, or perhaps culpability. Language errors abound in material of all sorts: advertisements in magazines and on TV; menus in restaurants exclusive and chain; newsletters put out by sole proprietors and multitudinous organizations; labels on products from peanuts to Playstations. The question is not just who writes this stuff and makes the errors that make me flinch. No, the question I find myself asking again and again is who gives this stuff the thumbs-up.

How many hands does a piece of copy go through before it's actually printed up and distributed to the public? A major manufacturer devises an ad campaign, or a big retail chain plans a sale event. (Not a sale; a sale event. But I digress.) No doubt an advertising agency or PR firm is involved, is given the task of writing copy and creating images that will please and entice. Perhaps the creative team has a team leader, who no doubt reports to a project manager, who himself answers to a director as well as to the client. Surely the client is given multiple opportunities to see and critique both copy and images, and surely the approval process involves multiple levels, from specific manager to VP for promotion, or whatever her title might be. At least two to four and probably as many as 10 to 20 people look at the material before it is finally approved and sent off for publication. It becomes clear that the responsibility for a stupid error lies on more shoulders than just the perpetrator's.

A culling of recent ads will illustrate my point. In the first sentence of its full-page, four-color ad in a glossy magazine for the Leeds Castle Collection of elegant furniture, Laneventure claims "The mere mention of the word castle congers up images of Henry VIII." Unfortunately, the word congers spoils those images entirely and instead conjures up a picture of writhing eels. It's bad enough that the person who wrote it went with phonetics and didn't bother to check a dictionary. But not a single person involved in the creation of this ad recognized that conjures had been laughably misspelled?? There is a second, less obvious error involving punctuation later in the ad, but the first error has already made me question the quality of the furnishings.

Let's move on to a sale catalog produced by Pier 1 Imports, a catalog presumably mailed out by the millions across the country. There are a few routine errors in punctuation and usage, and then on page 10 we are invited to "marvel at an amazing fete of pricing." Now, I could understand confusion between feet and feat, which are at least pronounced alike (understand, but not forgive). But fete is of French origin and is given the French pronunciation. (There should be a circumflex over the first e, but that's a different problem.) I doubt very much the writer intended a pun, with fete given its actual meaning of festival or party; "a festival of pricing" isn't wordplay of any kind, not even a bad pun. Clearly the writer realized that feet was not correct and could not plumb the dim recesses of memory deeply enough to come up with feat, settling for a simple transposition that would, he assumed, rhyme with Pete, not with pet. This is another example of phonetic spelling without a dictionary check. And again I have to ask: How did this idiotic error escape the notice of everyone responsible for the creation of this catalog?

Please don't tell me someone noticed but didn't speak up, didn't think it was important enough to correct. Please don't tell me politics made it imprudent to point out the error. And please don't tell me no one bothered to actually read the copy once it had been written. I would have to hang my head and heave a sigh so deep it would reach my toes. Ignorance is bad. Indifference is worse.

It's important to note that neither of these examples is the work of uneducated people, or even your average Joe. This is the work of people who are paid to write and should be judged against the highest standards for that reason. Dictionaries and style manuals should be at their elbow and in daily use.

Finally, we have an ad for a small business that appeared in a local advertising publication. At the top of this full-page ad for a health club, in 20-point letters, appears "Give you family the gift of fitness." This wince-inducing error has nothing to do with confusion between homophones or uncertainty about pronoun case. This is an out-and-out mistake, a typo, in letters so big nobody actually looked at them. It's a shame, too, because there isn't a single error in spelling, punctuation, or grammar anywhere else in this ad. The unit modifier "24-hour" is correctly hyphenated; the possessive, both singular and plural, has been used correctly in the information about "Frederick's first kids' fitness center," which is exceedingly rare and even praiseworthy. However, there is a second error. In the map at the bottom showing how to get to this health club, the circled number indicating Route 355 has been confusingly truncated to 35, more evidence of failure to proofread.

No fair blaming the printer or typesetter. As they say in the printing business, "Follow your copy even if it goes out the window." It isn't the printer's job to point out errors; I bet printers get a lot of blank stares or angry glares if they try that. Even if the copy was correct and the typo was the printer's error, it's still the job of those paying for the ad to proofread it before approving it for publication, which obviously didn't happen.

Let us note that none of these risible mistakes would have been questioned by a spelling check program; congers, fete, and you are all correctly spelled (although fete is, to my eye, orthographically incomplete). They are simply not correct in their contexts. It frightens me to think that not one of the people responsible for them knew that, or noticed, or cared.